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Over the summer a lot of the engineering students here have been out on work placements. At the end of the placement, they write a report on it, which is then assessed. These reports get shared arouhd the staff in order to do this, so I’ve got a few to do, which are beginning to land either in my email inbox or in hardcopy form on my desk.  

Now, the students get the chance, if they wish, to submit a draft report for comment first, before they submit their final one. After looking at these for a few years now, I can pretty-well write half my comments before looking at the report, since they are almost always lacking in one area – namely ‘Reflection and Review’.

The point of this section is to get students to think about their own development as they went through the placement. Reports are generally full of technical stuff, such as how to programme a laser-differential centrifugal widget-driver, which is all fine, but doesn’t really tell me whether the placement was a success or not. I mean this: our engineering degree is there to get students to a position where they can enter an engineering workplace. The summer work placements are intended to be steps towards this goal.  So, in the student’s opinion, did they come out of the placement closer to this end goal than before they went in?  What caused this learning? / what hindered it? / what has the student identified that still needs to be done?  This is all reflection, and it indicates that a student is able to think critically about the skills they have in relation with the skills they need.

Unfortunately, ‘reflecting’ isn’t something that the average engineering or physics student does naturally. (Nor does writing in whole sentences without resorting to text language, but that’s another issue.)  I know this myself – for my Postgraduate Certificate in Tertiary Teaching, I need to keep a ‘reflective teaching journal’. That might be easy-peasy for an arty-type, but physicists and engineers tend to shy away from using the ‘I’ word – I mean, what is personal about physics? But I do know that reflecting helps me to recognize how I am doing (in my case, in teaching) relative to where I want to be, and how I might get to where I want to be.

So, the students usually find the ‘Reflection’ section of their placement reports difficult to write, and, likewise, I suspect my reflective diary is going to be difficult for me to write. The latter might help me understand the problems my students have with the former, though, and that’s got to be a good thing. (Is that a reflection?)